Treasury Chief Secretary Danny Alexander said the £42.6bn project might have a comparable effect on UK’s economic geography to the Victorian railway construction.
Despite the growing criticism and rising costs, HS2 promises “much wider” benefits, Alexander said when defending the project in front of the Treasury Select Committee on Tuesday. He further reassured the MPs about the government’s commitment to the project.
When challenged by the committee chairman Andrew Tyrie how the scheme could have survived the "zero-based" approach to capital spending to ensure value for money for taxpayers while squeezing the budgets, Alexander explained the government believes HS2 should be exempt from short-term economic provisions as it has a potential to trigger extensive economic transformation.
"We know from countries around the world that improved connectivity of this sort is something which makes a big difference in terms of the balance of your economy over a number of decades,” Alexander said, explaining the basis for his expectations relating to the railway link designed to connect eight of ten UK’s largest cities.
He further said to the critics he believed that despite the increasing costs, the project needs to be evaluated in the context of its long-term benefits. “I think that there is a very strong economic case for HS2 as a project that can transform the economic geography of the United Kingdom in the way that the advent of the railways in Victorian times did then."
He also defended the recently increased budget as having been a response to the previous 30 per cent "optimism bias" which was effectively a contingency fund.
Earlier on Tuesday, it has been announced the route of the first phase of the £42.6 billion HS2 high-speed rail project, from London to Birmingham, has been protected from future development which might conflict with the planned line.
The "safeguarding" was announced by Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin and involves the first section of the route which is due to be completed in 2026.
The move will enable people living near the route - which passes through picturesque Tory heartlands in the Chilterns - to approach the Government to buy their property under statutory blight procedures.
Successful applicants will receive the unblighted open market value of their property, plus 10 per cent up to £47,000 and moving costs.
Currently the only mechanism through which the Government is buying properties on or near the HS2 route is through the exceptional hardship scheme (EHS) for owner-occupiers who can demonstrate that they have an urgent need to sell.
From Tuesday, owner-occupiers within the safeguarded area - typically a corridor 120 metres wide - can now serve a Blight Notice on the Government requesting their home to be purchased from them.
The Government wants to introduce a full compensation scheme that is more generous than the law requires and will be re-consulting on a package shortly. In the meantime, the EHS scheme will continue - alongside the statutory blight procedures announced on Tuesday.
Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said: "HS2 is moving from the drawing board towards construction. Safeguarding is an important milestone for homeowners and for planning purposes. It shows we are determined to deliver this once-in-a generation opportunity to drive growth, generate jobs, and secure our country's future prosperity.
"I understand the distress of those who live along the line of route and can assure people that we will process claims to purchase their property swiftly so that those who qualify can move as quickly as possible.
HS2 is opposed by some residents and some councils. Opposition to the scheme has grown since the Government revealed that the scheme's cost, including contingencies, had risen around 39 billion to more than £42 billion.